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Uses of Nucleus Hives by Roger Patterson

Various uses of honey bee nuclei

In 2007 Dave Cushman asked me to write this page on nuclei. Since then I have introduced and expanded other pages on nuclei considerably, repeating some of the text from here. On this page I have changed the format somewhat and done a little editing, otherwise the content is as the original. I leave it here for historical purposes. R.P.

Roger comments on nucleus hives... They are very useful pieces of kit, expensive to buy new, and second hand ones are often poorly made. They are very easy to make from scraps of wood and Roger has designed his own. Use button top left. The rest of this document is in Roger's own words. D.A.C.

Some Uses for a Nucleus.

Most beekeepers will develop their own methods, but few will include the nucleus as part of their management system. This I think is a pity, as with a little planning there are many things you can do with them, but of course you will need to know how the bees are going to react, and this will come with experience. More mistakes are likely to be made than with a full colony, but the benefits can be great.

In my view most beekeepers are far too rigid with colony numbers. I think an apiary should be a fairly fluid thing with possibly a fairly stable number of honey producing colonies, and a varying number of support colonies, mainly nuclei that service them. Numbers can be reduced by selling or uniting.

Here are a few ideas....

There are occasions when a nucleus can be used for several purposes, so let me give you a hypothetical situation. If you have a spare queencell early in the season from a good colony, you can make up a 2 frame nucleus from old combs you wish to change. This can be with adhering bees, or the bees shaken off and young bees shaken in from another colony. Leave for 24 hours and give it a queen cell. When numbers build up you can add other combs that need replacing, but without adhering bees. When the nucleus hive is full you can transfer the unit to a brood chamber, but keep filling with combs, minus bees, that you wish to replace from your main colonies.

When the brood chamber is full you can do a comb change or shook swarm, but during that time you may be able to have several queens mated in the unit.

At any time during the summer you can do what you like with it, such as bolster another colony, or when it is still small you can change places with a colony that is showing signs of swarming, so you are milking flying bees from it. If you have weaker nuclei you wish to strengthen, then you can change positions. At the end of the season you have an extra colony and have made up any winter losses before they occur. Just think of the advantages, you have the opportunity to raise new queens and test them before they go into full colonies, you are changing combs, helping reduce swarming, making increase, and have a spare queen and bees available if you need them.

Be prepared to move nuclei around the apiary, as they can be weakened of flying bees if they are getting too strong, or strengthened if they need building up. If they need weakening they can be moved in stages towards another colony that is in need of strengthening, then moved some distance away, allowing the flying bees to bolster either a weaker or honey producing colony. I do not subscribe to the view that moving bees and combs increases disease, as my view is that the beekeeper should make disease checking part of their normal inspections, and to be vigilant at all times.

Making a nucleus.

In making a nucleus we must understand three things...

  1. Bees from two colonies will often fight, but those from three or more won't.
  2. If a new unit is made up in the same apiary the flying bees will usually go back to their original site.
  3. The normal rules of queen or queen cell introduction apply.

We should also see that the nucleus has the means to survive and prosper by ensuring...

A nucleus can easily be made by either splitting a single colony, or by taking bees and/or frames from several colonies, and giving it either a queen in a cage or queen cell, either protected or 24 hours later.

For making several smaller nuclei from a single colony there is the Cloake Method, where a colony is split into nucleus boxes equally spaced around the original colony position, with the original hive removed. The flying bees split themselves up equally. The easy way is to make increase from within your own bees in the same apiary, and there are several ways this can be done without the adult population flying back home, all of which will need a little knowledge, but without knowledge you shouldn't be attempting it anyway. The normal ways are to put the nucleus on the site of an existing nucleus or colony, or to ensure there are enough young bees that haven't flown, either by shaking in several extra frames, or enticing young bees onto frames of unsealed brood. Another way is to lay a cloth or sack on the ground and shake several brood combs onto it. The flying bees will soon take wing leaving non flying bees that can be shaken into the nucleus.

As with all aspects of beekeeping a sound knowledge of the basics will help you understand more of what happens inside a hive, and there are many more uses for nuclei than appear here. In my view nuclei are an important part of apiary management and should be used imaginatively.

Roger Patterson.